Ramblings..., Reviews

Smoke Ring Roma – Review

Via Portuense, 86, 00153 Roma, ItalySmoke Ring interior

Rome is a wonderful city for finding tasty food – there is a much broader selection of cuisines and styles than you will find in many other Italian towns (although that too is slowly changing) although anyone who has visited Italy will know there is more to the cuisine than pizza and pasta. During my most recent visit I chose four places which I feel any food-orientated traveller would be well rewarded by investigating if they find themselves in the Eternal City and reviews of all will eventually be posted. I should point out that I deliberately chose two eateries that are about as far from traditional Italian cooking as you can get and this is not because I dislike Italian food (far from it) but because sometimes you have to go somewhere a bit different. And let’s face it, if you find a traditional U.S-style smokehouse in Rome it simply has to be tried…

I was very, very excited when I discovered this place during some web-based research for possible tasty destinations. After all, I was in Rome to visit my ‘Meat-wife’ (my real wife is a vegetarian) who has shared some of the best BBQ the UK has to offer and who has recently moved to Rome to teach. She told me that she really, really missed the kind of meaty treats that we had gorged on every month so I felt it my duty to find somewhere. I wasn’t expecting much to be honest – at best I thought I might find a sort of TGI-Friday sort of faux American monstrosity – but I was thrilled to find that in 2013 a group of Italian BBQ enthusiasts opened this welcoming place on the West bank of the River Tiber. They take their craft very seriously, lovingly explaining on their website the importance of low and slow cooking and the miraculous flavour that smoke imparts to meat. They meant business. We had to go.

In true tourist fashion we arrived for dinner WAY before the locals – the place was empty at 7pm but the tables were dotted with reservation markers for 9pm and beyond – but like the troopers we are we were not put off. Smoke Ring has set up home in a brick archway and if you have been to any BBQ joint pretty much anywhere in the world, as soon as you walk in you’ll feel right at home. Light bulbs dangle uncovered from the ceiling, a huge rack of barrels full of liquor are stacked on one wall, signs behind the bar offer craft beer and cocktails – it is every inch the smokehouse that anyone would expect. Yes it may seem a bit tired to those who have tried many (not us however) but finding this kind of place in Rome is both comforting and refreshing. We took a seat at one of the many communal tables and had a look at the menu – eager to see what we could cram into our bellies. Meat is sold by weight (or portion in the case of ribs and wings) and you grab a tick-box form from the table, wonder how much meat you can get away with, and then take your filled in form up to the bar to pay. We ordered ribs, brisket, pulled pork, hot links, and chicken wings along with a bottle of an amber coloured wine from Lazio – as we weren’t sure on portion size, we went for 6 servings of ribs, 200g each of pulled pork and brisket, 2 portions of links, and 5 hot wings. This proved to be possibly rather excessive.

Hot links, ribs, and brisket

Hot links, ribs, and brisket

The ribs were St Louis cut – fat, juicy and huge. They had been gently seasoned with a simple but tasty rub and smoked to perfection – a nice bark and the meat clinging to the bone. I would perhaps have appreciated a glaze of sauce to finish but they were pretty fantastic all said. And six was far too much even for us (we managed four). The brisket came sliced thin which revealed the rouge ring imparted by the smoker and was savoury and delicious but possibly a little dry. The servings of links turned out to be two huge sausages cut into generous portions – we were very nearly defeated by them – and were some of the best that I’ve had, spicy and smoky with a satisfying snap when bitten into. Wonderful. Wings were also excellent – smoky, succulent, and pleasingly messy. The pulled pork was not half bad either and packed a deep, porcine punch with just the right amount of rub and a top quality amount of smoke for flavour. This is hard to do – Smoke Ring do it VERY well. The only slight let downs were the two sauces that came with the wings and pork – one was supposedly a standard BBQ sauce but in reality tasted a bit like ketchup with a bit of oregano thrown in, the other was a supposedly spicy number but lacked any real kick. That is not to say that either were unpleasant but given the quality of the majority of the cooking it did come as something of a disappointment.

But for all that meat and a bottle of excellent local wine we paid the grand total of 55 euro which was more than good value. By the time we left the place was filling up nicely and I certainly intend to visit again the next time I find myself in Rome and if you find yourself craving some serious carnivorous delights when you visit, this is the place to go.

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Grillstock Smokehouse, Walthamstow – review

 

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There may be some (or indeed many) that view the opening of a new American BBQ joint in London as yet another example of lazy, greedy people trying to cash in on recent food trends. Another attempt to grab a few extra quid from the ‘dude-food’ obsessed crowd of bearded 20-somethings who slavishly follow every pop-up, food van, or ‘next big thing’ bricks-and-mortar establishment. And if the new branch of Grillstock in the heart of Walthamstow (alarms begin to sound as people realise they have to travel beyond the hipster haven of Hackney) was the result of cynical, soulless, cash-laden backers trying to make a quick buck then perhaps such suspicions would be justified.

But this, my good friends, is Grillstock.

And there’s a little bit more to it than that.

Starting life as a Bristol music and food festival way back in 2010, long before pulled pork featured on almost every pub and restaurant menu, Grillstock is a loud, meaty love-letter to the massive BBQ festivals and traditions of the US. We’re talking about groups of people who all get together over a weekend and sit around their blackened smokers, occasionally testing temperature and burn rate, to produce the ultimate in low and slow cooking, drinking ice cold beers, and generally being awesome. Grillstock (the festival, which this year is taking place at three different locations) puts meat at the centre of their celebrations and, like the US, features a genuine BBQ competition where everything from chicken to brisket to ribs is judged and rewarded with a variety of prizes and awards, alongside some great music, fine beer, BBQ demos, and some excellent places to chomp on various parts of porcine anatomy. And the chilli-eating competition is alarmingly entertaining to watch.

Following the success of the festival, a little smokehouse in Bristol’s St Nicholas market opened which was quickly followed by a larger site at Clifton Triangle and the lucky locals were thus able to feast on genuine, fabulous BBQ all year round. Having visited both on several occasions I can honestly say that the meat at Grillstock in Bristol seriously rivalled anything I’d had in London and, actually, made me rather jealous in the process. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve got some excellent BBQ in the capital – Miss P, Pitt Cue Co, The Joint – but we didn’t have Grillstock.

Until now.

Following the success of their first opening outside of Bristol (in the beautiful city of Bath), the owners turned their eyes toward London and, having carefully found the right site, opened their doors to the baying public on April 10th this year. I was lucky enough to get an table at the soft opening (which was by guest-list only) the day before and took a good friend along who also shares a penchant for smoked meats. This was my first proper expedition out of South London since being ill and I was personally very pleased I could just sit on a tube to the end of the line – thus saving more energy for meat.

On entering I have to say I was pretty bowled over by the place. The Clifton smokehouse is small – one large table down the middle of the room and that is it – but Grillstock E17 is spacious and filled with a huge variety of seating options. There are tables for two, a few booths, a big communal table with high stools, and a selection of customisable options for groups of anything from 5 to 10. Like Bristol (and I assume Bath too), once you’ve been seated you then order your food from the bar, collect your drink, and sit back and relax in anticipation of a huge meaty feast to come. The decor is pretty stripped back – the breeze block walls are adorned with posters from Grillstocks past and a bit of metal here and there – but the atmosphere and lighting is welcoming and hearty. It’s the kind of place that will be great on a hot summers day but also perfect to hide away and warm up in thedepths of winter. Also like Bristol, the staff are relaxed, friendly, and clearly enjoying themselves.

DSC_0982But what about the food?

Grillstock offer either a plate of one type of meat, a combo of three, a sharing platter of all four meats for two people, or the Grand Champion which is a selection so big I wouldn’t be surprised if it took more than one staff member to carry it (finish it in an hour and win a shirt and some hot sauce – maybe next time). They also do a range of burgers which includes the vast Lockjaw, consisting of two 5oz burgers, pulled pork, brisket, burnt ends, cheese, and fry-sauce which has to be seen to be believed, as well as hot dogs and a variety of sides and extras like BBQ beans and cornbread. This may make choosing your dinner rather difficult.

I’ve eaten my fair share of ribs, pulled pork, and wings in my time. Some have been good, others pretty poor. My combo platter of all three aforementioned meats at Grillstock was, quite simply, amazing. The ribs were soft and tender with a good ‘bark’ of smoked exterior that yielded to reveal perfectly cooked meat within. The wings had a nice zing and were succulent and delicious and the pulled pork was smoky, savoury, and incredibly more-ish. These marvels of smoked flesh were served with a huge fistful of fries, a well-balanced slaw, a lovely little brioche-style bun, and some house pickles which put many so-called ‘home-made’ pickles I’ve sampled in London to shame – crunchy, tangy, a bit of spice – everything a pickle should be.

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Ribs, wings, and pulled pork combo

My companion also had pulled pork but chose the smoked chicken and a slab of brisket to go with it. Brisket is a hard thing to get right – it is easy to dry out and turn into a leathery mess that needs a saw to hack through it – but the years of experience of low and slow cooking pay off here, producing a juicy, smoky, slab of wonder. The chicken was pretty special too.

Chicken, brisket, and pulled pork

Chicken, brisket, and pulled pork

All of this can be smothered in the house BBQ or hot sauces, which sit proudly on the table alongside traditional condiments like ketchup, American mustard (French’s of course!), and the classic Frank’s Hot Sauce.

And speaking of Franks – Frank Underwood would definitely come back for the ribs here, even though he has a favourite rib joint of his own.

Sorry, I may have been watching a bit too much ‘House of Cards’….

Back to Grillstock…

To go with our meats, we sampled the own-brand pale ale which was light and nicely hopped – perfect with BBQ – and were certainly tempted by the wall of bourbons and other boozy delights that shone from behind the bar. I can also recommend the Pistonhead lager or any of the Brooklyn beers they offer – all easy drinking and all perfect with the food. Or you can have cider, cocktails, iced tea, or root beer. You get the idea.

We were reluctant to leave – it was very tempting to sup on a few more beers, wait for the food to go down, and then start again but eventually we shuffled off, full and happy.

I cannot recommend Grillstock highly enough. Everything from the staff, the room, the food, the drink, the atmosphere – it’s all brilliant. And surprisingly well priced too. The combo platter (which filled me up enough so as not to need dinner) is £18 which is an absolute bargain, I have been to places where a single portion of (not so good) ribs cost more and certainly didn’t come with such a wide selection of sides. The beers were £3.80 each and you can get a Jack Daniels and Coke for £3.50! This is all good news.

So get on up to Walthamstow and try it. Or, if Bristol or Bath are nearer, head down there instead – you’ll find the same quality of food and service across the board. And once you’ve done that, buy a ticket to one of the festivals this year either in Bristol, Manchester, or London and take your experience further. Grillstock’s motto is Meat, Music, Mayhem – it could not be a more fitting description of this excellent enterprise.

Grillstock Walthamstow

198 Hoe St,

E17

www.grillstock.co.uk

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Recipes, Saucy, Spicy

Kansas City BBQ Rib Sauce

As part of my birthday celebrations this year I decided to throw a bit of a US-style meat feast featuring things like brisket, ribs, wings, and cornbread. I have been using the dependable and excellent Pitt Cue Co. recipe for BBQ sauce for a couple of years now but I decided that a change was in order and, having sampled various sauces and dips at Grillstock 2014, I set about hunting down a new one.

I’m slightly ashamed to say that I can’t remember which of the many BBQ sites that this recipe originally came from – if anyone finds it let me know and I’ll add a link. It is a really easy sauce to make and I’m definitely going to do a larger batch next time round as the richness and layers of heat and spice are rather addictive. I adjusted the amount of sugar to make a sweeter (and ultimately darker) sauce which set off the smoky, fatty ribs perfectly. And also went very well with the hot dogs we had for breakfast the next day….

NB – if you can’t get hold of liquid smoke don’t worry, the sauce is more than amazing without it.

Ingredients

  • 240 ml ketchup
  • 60 ml water
  • 60 ml cider vinegar
  • 130g brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon chilli powder
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  •  1 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon liquid smoke

Method

In a large saucepan gently heat the olive oil and add the garlic – keep it moving so it doesn’t burn and make everything taste of bitter nastiness.

When the garlic is soft and fragrant, add all the rest of the ingredients and stir thoroughly to combine.

Bring to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes until it is thick and unctuous then decant into a sterilized jar or sauce bottle.

Smother over any BBQ meat of your choice and feel very smug.

Seriously saucy - Kansas City style sauce

Seriously saucy – Kansas City style sauce

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Meaty, Recipes

Home-smoked ribs

One of the things I love the most about real BBQ is the deep richness that comes from slow, low cooking in a smoker. Sadly, as I live in a first floor flat without any kind of outdoor space (apart from a windowsill and that is hardly going to accommodate a big fat Weber), I have been unable to indulge in such antics.

Rubbish.

However, I have been toying around with the idea of using my stove-top smoker to infuse the meat and then my conventional oven to finish the cooking and I have to say I think I’ve come up trumps. When you use a proper cold-smoker you need to keep a tray of water near the meat to help keep it moist and control the temperature of the smoke – otherwise you’ll end up some charred, dry unpleasantness that will make you sad. Now, I know that you can put metal hot-smokers in the oven but I didn’t want to go down that road for a two-hour cooking session as there is nowhere to put a tray of water that would benefit the process. Nor did I want my oven to smell like a bonfire for the next few weeks (smoky cake anyone?) so I decided to use the hot-smoker on the hob and then transfer the meat to a baking dish and put liquid in that before covering the whole lot and cooking at a low temperature for a good couple of hours. Simple.

I used a rub based on the excellent Pitt Cue Co recipe – I would have followed it exactly but didn’t have all the ingredients – and let the meat sit overnight before smoking. After finishing in the oven I have to say the results were fantastic! Although there wasn’t exactly the smoke ring through the meat that is the sign of proper BBQ, there was a bit of char and a good ‘bark’ (if you eat enough BBQ you’ll know what I mean) and, above all, there was a glorious smoky flavour that ran through the whole thing. It was quite staggeringly good. I’m going to make it again. Probably rather soon. So, here we go….

Note that the following quantity makes a large amount of rub but it keeps really well in a sealed container for a few weeks. Also, make sure you remove the thin membrane on the ribs – if you turn them so the curved side is down, use a sharp knife to carefully separate the membrane from the meat and then pull the whole thing off. It may or may not come off in one go. And yes, it is alarmingly satisfying.

Finally, if you haven’t got any liquid smoke don’t worry – it works fine with just water. Or bourbon. Or both…

Ingredients

For the rub:

  • 5g fennel seeds
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/2 black peppercorns
  • 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 50g dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 onion powder
  • 50g fine sea salt
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika

Along with:

  • 1 rack baby-back ribs (membrane removed)
  • 2 tsp liquid smoke
  • a glug of bourbon
  • 100ml water
  • BBQ sauce for glazing

Method

First, make the rub. In a dry pan lightly toast the fennel, cumin, pepper, and coriander until they begin to smell amazing then remove and allow to cool. Blitz with the rest of the spices in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar.

Next, prepare the ribs. It is worth making sure they will fit easily in your smoker – you may find you have to cut the rack into portions but that won’t matter. Having removed the membrane from the rack, rub the whole lot generously with your, er, rub, cover, and put in the fridge overnight. If you have space put the ribs on a wire rack to let any liquid drip out but it’s not a disaster if your fridge is too mini.

The following day, remove the ribs from the fridge and pat them dry with some kitchen paper and allow to come back up to room temperature.

Prepare your smoker – I used oak chippings but any decent strong flavour will do – put the meat on the rack in the drip tray over a handful of chippings, put the lid on and place over a high heat until it begins to smoulder and then turn your hob down low. Cook the ribs for 30 mins then remove from the smoker.

While your kitchen is slowly turning into a smoky den (make sure you have all your windows open!!!), put a small wire rack in a roasting tray and add your liquids to the bottom. Pre-heat your oven to Gas mark 2/150c.

When your ribs are smoked, put them on the rack and cover the tray with foil then put in the oven for at least two hours, checking occasionally and adding more liquid if necessary.

After waiting patiently and smelling the increasingly awesome aroma that will be filling your kitchen, remove the tray and have a look at the meat – the outside will flake away and the meat should be tender and easily come away from the bone.

Glaze with BBQ sauce and finish under a hot grill to add an extra layer of gloss and decadence.

Eat without delay with pickles and any other BBQ delights you may have. I found some burnt ends kicking about so I had them too….

Ribs and burnt ends

Ribs and burnt ends

NB – I got the burnt ends from Bodeans who supply excellent pre-cooked BBQ packs to take away…

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